- Photography: Garett Fisbeck / Design: Christopher Street
Steven Paul Judd is one of the hottest artists and filmmakers in Native American circles right now and a truly unique voice in Oklahoma’s Indian Country, in large part because his art makes Indian people laugh and white people think.
His latest short film, Ronnie BoDean, is a 12-minute love letter to ’70s-era antiheroes and stars iconic Oklahoma actor Wes Studi. It premiered earlier this year at deadCENTER Film Festival and has since screened at events in Germany, Denver, San Francisco, Toronto and Paris.
Ronnie BoDean was designed to be a short that could also be used to pitch a possible feature or series about the character. The project is a strong contender to be the breakout work that gets Native American filmmakers noticed by the mainstream.
The dark comedy opens as Ronnie wakes up in his car, presumably after falling asleep in it from a night of drinking, and sees his neighbor arrested. When the neighbor’s children come home, Ronnie “babysits” them, and in the process, he teaches them a life skill: how to hustle three-card monte. One of the film’s early working titles was Ronnie BoDean: World’s Worst Babysitter, and it was shot in Norman over several days.
While Ronnie BoDean is a straightforward comedy, each frame is loaded with Native American in-jokes. There are smudge sticks in the ashtray, a child’s milk glass advertises a casino, Ronnie’s house number is 1491, he smokes Smoke Signal cigarettes (Judd’s nod to American Spirit and Quentin Tarantino’s Red Apple cigarettes and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals film) and Ronnie even takes off his boots to kick people’s ass, à la Tom Laughlin’s 1970s counterculture action hero Billy Jack.
“As a kid, I would watch movies and come home and act them out. … I would do fights — or whatever I perceived as a 12-year-old kid as cool — with my brothers and sisters. When I was in college, I thought, ‘I would want to make something that the 12-year-old me would go home and pretend to do.’ The character would not only be cool, but he would be a cool Native character with a little bit of self-worth, for once,” said Judd, who is Kiowa and Choctaw. “I make a lot of different kind of movies, but if I had any control to make my own things, I always think of the 12-year-old me.”
Having Studi, a Native American film legend, join the project certainly attracted attention to it, but he wasn’t a consideration as Judd wrote the script.
“A lot of great actors were auditioning for the part, but there was something very specific I was looking for. … I needed him to exude a little bit of natural coolness. I needed him to be tough, but I also needed comedic timing so he could be funny when he’s delivering these lines, even though they weren’t hardcore jokes,” Judd said. “I don’t know how Wes came to my mind, but I thought, ‘If he delivered these lines straight, it would be funny.’”
Judd first came onto the scene with a feature film he made with high school friend Tvli Jacob: 2003’s Native American Graffiti: This Thing Life. They recorded it with a digital camera bought off Craigslist.
While Judd was promoting that film, he won a competition for aspiring writers, which led to a move to Los Angeles.
He became a staff writer for Disney XD sitcom Zeke and Luther. He went on to direct the 2013 horror film Death Factory and is now doing post-production work on two projects: Headgame and Danny Trejo vehicle Crowning Glory: A Psycho Thriller. Two of his short comedy films — Shhh! (2013) and Search for the World’s Best Indian Taco (2010) — earned him accolades on the film festival circuit.
- Garett Fisbeck
- Steven Paul Judd in Oklahoma City, November 1, 2015.
The subversive use of iconography in his graphic design work is often compared to Andy Warhol, and Judd jokingly refers to himself as “Andy Warriorhol.”
He created a series of provocative mash-ups using pop culture imagery and 19th-century Native American photographs, such as Godzilla about to stomp a row of teepees as UFOs hover overhead. His art also includes Banksy-like projects and Warhol-inspired Native American portraits.
His designs can be seen on the Web, T-shirts, stickers, prints and even as graffiti and street art — including a “War Paint” mural in Los Angeles’ Skid Row — and indigenized superheroes like Siouxperwoman, Siouxperman and Powwow Rangers.
“With ‘War Paint,’ I was trying to retake that work,” he said. “Anyone who uses ink — whether a writer uses ink, or an artist uses ink or a photographer uses ink — any time you are using ink to further a social cause or a movement, it’s your war paint, the modern warrior’s war paint.”
The pop culture references give an immediacy to Judd’s seemingly simple statements.
For example, his The Indigenous Hulk, the reimagined, braid-wearing Marvel antihero that swells with strength and anger at his people’s broken treaties, can at first read like a joke. However, a look below the surface shows that Judd is committing an artistic act of reverse cultural appropriation by taking an image from the dominant, American culture and reclaiming it for Native Americans.
Judd said he tried to explain the concept to one white critic by asking him to imagine entertainment in which no movies, television shows or advertisements included white people in them.
“Well, you could see a white person, like in a Western, like an old frontier’s man, but that’s about it,” Judd said, and then he laughed. “That’s how it is with Native people. I get it; we’re a small percentage — why would they waste advertising dollars, or pop culture, making these things? But we love TV! We would like to see a lunchbox or an action figure or a funny poster done with a Native kind of vibe to it, so I am just trying to fill a hole.”
Judd’s laughter in the midst of serious discussion is his trademark and probably his strongest feature as an artist. His short films, which he both writes and directs, and his graphic works are conspicuous political statements expressed with such wit and brevity that his art often endears people to it before its message can even be interpreted.
When creating his 2011 stop-motion short Neil Discovers the Moon, Judd said he was inspired by Gary Larson, author of syndicated, single-panel comic The Far Side. Judd first drew a panel showing an Indian girl greeting Neil Armstrong as he steps on the moon.
He decided to make it into a one-minute film.
“I love the way Larson could take a simple idea and do it as one frame,” he said. “It’s a good way to teach people without yelling at them.”
Outside of introductory classes in high school and college, Judd hasn’t studied art.
“Any of the graphic design stuff I’ve done, with my stickers, I learned how to do it on Photoshop,” he explained. “When I was trying to make Six Pack and Gas Money (a Tarantinoesque Native American project still on the back burner), I wanted to make a poster for it, so I Googled ‘cool movie poster tutorials,’ and one came up for a vintage boxing poster. The first thing I did, ‘Battle of the Little Bighorn,’ turned out nicely, and people wanted to buy it. That was my first foray into design.
“Learning Photoshop is tedious, but I wanted to learn because I couldn’t get these ideas in my head. I couldn’t make them unless I learned. No one’s going to make a vintage boxing poster with Sitting Bull and Custer unless you make it yourself.”
One of his photo manipulation projects, now available as both a sticker and a T-shirt, “I Loved America Before it was Called America,” will likely become a mural in Norman.
“That’s a tricky one because a lot of people didn’t understand it at first. The one thing that Native Americans have on our side is — legally, treaties have been broken — we have a legal leg to stand on,” he said. “When people talk about American exceptionalism, I always ask if this exceptionalism includes honoring the treaties. They say, ‘You don’t love America, man; you hate it so much.’ I’m like, ‘Au contraire, player; I love America so much I loved it even before it was called America! My ancestors loved it here; we loved it before it was called America.’
“We’re like hipsters; we loved it before it was cool. That’s what that sign means,” he explained. “It’s not anti-American at all; it was an answer to these people who want to use patriotism as a way to not honor treaties.”
The mural is also Judd’s answer to the Centennial Land Run Monument, which many Native Americans see as a reminder of Native land that was taken from their people.
“When I heard about these statues they had in downtown Oklahoma City, I went to see them. I heard the statues were giant, and I wanted to see these statues of giant Native Americans,” he said. “I get down there, and I see a schooner and people having fun on their horses, but there’s not one Native person. I was like, ‘This is the 21st century?!’ I understand in the ’70s they were trying to not mention it, but I thought we were past that.”
Judd feels it is a matter of educating people, and he sees art as one way to do just that.
“I think there are genuine, good people in Oklahoma who just don’t know,” he said. “If you want to say this was untamed land, just remember that there were people already living here on this land that y’all were foraging.”
The obsession with pop culture that seems to drive his work is particularly interesting after Judd admitted that he was not nursed on television like most Americans — he did not see a TV until he was in the hospital to have his tonsils removed.
Though he was too young to remember the experience, according to his family, someone flipped on that box.
“The Wizard of Oz was playing, which starts out in black-and-white and then turns to color. So in the span of 30 minutes, I had seen the invention of TV, black-and-white and then color, but then those flying monkeys came out and I started crying, so they turned it off,” he remembered. “I went home and told my brothers and sisters that there is this thing called TV and we had to get it, so my mom and dad got us a TV, but it was black-and-white.”
One of his earliest memories is watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang take flight on television, which inspired a flying car in his short Search for the World’s Best Indian Taco.
“When I was a kid, there were reruns of CHiPs, and I thought Erik Estrada kind of looked like my uncle, so I wanted to be a policeman,” he said. “That let me know early on that media can influence.”
While film and graphic art is usually enough for most people, Judd also has taken Native art into new platforms with his free app game, Invaders, for Android and iPhone (search “Invaders Judd”).
It’s his interpretation of Space Invaders: The shooter is an image of a Native American with a bow and arrow, adapted from a 19th-century photo.
“With Invaders, it is also a two-part thing,” he said. “I loved Space Invaders, and the second part is, well, I think you can read into it: Someone is trying to invade where you are living, you know, peacefully. I tell people it’s the only time you’re allowed to play Indian and not get in trouble.”
Around the time he developed the game, he was contacted by Canadian First Nations’ electronic music group A Tribe Called Red about doing artwork for its CD, Suplex.
Judd was interested in doing a retro computer image for the project, but as he researched Native images from classic video games, the only image he could find was racist and disturbing.
“I was thinking, once again, because of nostalgia and pop culture — I love the 16-bit games that I had when I was a kid — and I thought, ‘I would like to have a 16-bit Native shirt,’” he said. “I Googled it because I was sure there would be one, but the only thing I could find was a game called Custer’s Revenge, where the object of the game was to get to an Indian girl and rape her.”
In 1982, once its contents were publicized, the game was infamously banned outright in Oklahoma City.
“When I saw that, I called A Tribe Called Red and I told them the story. I said, ‘I think we have to have our own 16-bit because the only one made by the dominate society was this rape video game, and no one has made one since,’” he said. “To their credit, they said, ‘We have to make this,’” so I made their 16-bit logo with the headdress they put on the cover of their CD and on their T-shirts.”
- Garett Fisbeck
- Steven Paul Judd uses wheat paste as he creates a mural on an outside wall of Stash in Norman.
Judd is currently working on multiple projects that he cannot yet announce. One he can talk about, however, is his first book, The Last Powwow, which was co-written with Thomas Yeahpau and hits shelves in 2016.
He describes it as “a collection of short stories that make up a larger story.”
And Ronnie BoDean will come home for the holidays: The short film will be available for $5 via video-on-demand the week of Christmas.
Print Headline: Andy Warriorhol, The art of local filmmaker, painter, writer and Oklahoma resident Steven Paul Judd subverts cultural norms while making people laugh.